Want to look great in five or ten years? On top of the pressure to buy the most expensive skincare products, fashion magazines and beauty bloggers often tout the benefits of getting once-a-month facials.
Sure, trips to a spa for lavender-scented pampering are a great way to relax. Over either a half or a full hour, your skin is steamed and sloughed, then soothingly massaged as a variety of masks and serums are layered on and wiped off, resulting in a glowing complexion.
But those services aren’t cheap—often costing close to a hundred dollars or more. Shelling out that kind of cash not only drains away our post-facial glow but always leaves us wondering if we couldn’t get the same results from performing our skin pampering at home.
Is there any proof that skin-focused spa services are actually better for your skin than at-home care? We looked at the three stages included in a standard facial service to understand, starting with:
Stage 1: Cleansing
Do facials leave your skin cleaner than an at-home washing? The answer depends a lot on the steps you take during your daily skin care routine.
Facials generally begin with a warm towel draped over your face. This isn’t just to induce relaxation, though—the heat is used to gently open pores. Your esthetician should then begin to clean skin using cleanser-soaked cotton pads. How “clean” your skin is after the treatment also depends on everything that touches your skin being sterile, so make sure that your esthetician wears gloves throughout the facial.
Also know that despite warmth effectively opening pores, hotter isn’t better.
Steaming skin, especially with abnormally hot steam, can worsen redness and potentially result in broken capillaries that show up as thin, spider-like lines—something to note for in-spa and at-home cleansing.
That being said, there isn’t any special skill or professional device that results in skin being cleaner post-facial than what you’re capable of performing in the low-cost comfort of your own bathroom.
Just remember that the same standards apply: Wash your hands first, removing any gunk from under your fingernails. Allow your pores to open with splashes of lukewarm water. Then gently apply your cleanser in small, circular motions, using cotton pads for slight exfoliation.
Can Facials Really Shrink Your Pores?
If you were dealt the oily skin card by genetics, you’ve likely suffered from acne, or, at least, tried a plethora of products to keep mid-day shine under control. That’s why it can be tempting to believe an esthetician’s claims that facials can shrink those pores—which is partially true.
Deep cleaning, followed by a skin-tightening astringent, can make pores appear smaller temporarily. However, the effect only lasts for about two hours.
If your pores appear larger because they’re clogged with gunk, gentle extractions can be of service. Extractions should only be performed on blackheads, not whiteheads or comedones since attempting to “pop” these inflamed nodules can possibly rupture your pore and create a scar. However, when done correctly, they can be a valuable preventative measure.
That’s because the hardened sebum that clogs pores also stretches them out. As we get older, it’s more and more difficult for our skin to snap back. (More on extractions in a minute.)
Your best bet to keeping pores petite? Even though it’s tempting to over-wash an oily complexion, doing so will only encourage your skin to create more of the slick stuff—enlarging your pores in the process.
Instead, use a gentle cleanser that helps balance your skin’s pH, followed by a light moisturizer.
A Note About Extractions
You’ve been told over and over never to pop your own pimples—instead, to leave it to the experts. So, when a baby Mt. Vernon appears on your chin, it’s only natural that you’d consider scheduling a facial.
However, it turns out that extractions aren’t even taught in detail at most cosmetology schools! Which is terrifying when you consider that, when done over-enthusiastically or incorrectly, extractions can lead to permanent scarring.
Even when your esthetician is well trained, there’s a chance your skin will react badly to extractions.
In a study performed by the Institute of Medical Science New Delhi, 142 women were given weekly facials over a 12-week observation period. Over 12 percent of the participants still showed signs of erythema, the reddening of skin in patches that results from superficial injury to the skin, an entire week after receiving extractions.
With that in mind, you may be one of the roughly 88 percent of people whose skin isn’t overly sensitive to extractions, for which it is possible for both estheticians and dermatologists to perform them in a way that’s non-damaging.
Just make sure that before you agree to the extra step during your facial, you ask your esthetician about their training and experience with the process.
Stage 2: Exfoliating
After it’s been cleansed, your esthetician exfoliates your skin with either a manual exfoliant, such as a gentle scrub, or a properly formulated chemical exfoliant. The latter can include an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) made from glycolic or lactic acid, or a beta hydroxy product (BHA) made of salicylic acid.
This step not only creates a smoother surface, but improves uneven skin tone, reduces dullness, and temporarily plumps skin, resulting in the reduced appearance of wrinkles.
Do estheticians do it better?
Like cleansing, this answer depends on whether or not you can resist the temptation to scrub the bejeezus out of your skin in hopes of getting a rosy glow. That’s because exfoliating your skin is great, but it is possible to overdo it—and your skin will tell you if you've gone too far.
For some people, once or twice a day works best; for others, every other day, or even once a week. You can (slowly) experiment to see what works best for you.
However, here’s a reason to schedule at least one facial: An experienced esthetician should be able to show you how to exfoliate properly and recommend products that are best for your skin type. Just watch out for someone who hesitates to recommend brands that their spa doesn’t sell, since they might be more concerned with a commission than your complexion.
Stage 3: Treatment
Read through the facial menu at many spas, and you find a dizzying list of specialized treatments, each with exotic ingredients. Of course, the more rare or precious these ingredients, the more expensive the service.
The truth is that, despite sounding fancy, there’s no available evidence that many of these treatments are good for your skin, even in the short-term. Here are a few types to watch out for:
Treatments That Claim to Remove Toxins
Your body is perfectly adept at removing toxins from foreign substances through your liver, which changes a toxin’s chemical structure so that it can then be excreted through the kidneys. From there, the broken-down substance is safely filtered from your blood into your urine.
Contrary to modern marketing hype, toxins can’t leave your body through the pores or through your skin. That’s because, unlike your liver and kidneys, skin can’t modify toxins in any way.
What about the idea that you can sweat toxins out? Turns out, that’s not the case. Sweat cools your body down, not flushes it out. In doing so, sweat can eliminate some by-products, such as urea, but that’s not what spas are referring to.
Instead, detox facials imply that they can remove so-called toxins from products, processed foods, or air pollution, which simply isn’t the case.
Treatments That Could Double as Jewelry
Diamonds, gold, and sapphires—oh my! As luxe as these ingredients sound, there’s not a lick of research showing that they’re good for your skin.
However, the same study performed by the Institute of Medical Science New Delhi did find that treatments including gold resulted in ongoing acne eruptions in over 33 percent of participants.
In fact, these ingredients, called “aspirational ingredients” by marketers, should be avoided when shopping for at-home products, too.
Treatments That Claim to “Penetrate” Your Skin
One thing that always baffled my mind is why we started believing that products could, or should, penetrate the skin. After all, your skin’s defenses start on the surface! Anything that could penetrate past that space would fail to help bolster that protection.
Fortunately, those claims are hogwash, as the molecules in any spa treatment are simply too big.
Treatments That Use Essential Oils
They may smell divine, but there’s a big difference between fragrance and skin care. All scented products, whether they’re scented with “natural” oils or chemical compounds, cause irritation. The irritation causes inflammation and harm to your skin.
Further, it’s important to understand that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have an official definition of what is “natural” as it applies to cosmetics and, in this case, skin treatments.
This can be very confusing to consumers who are concerned about what they put on their skin. However, natural doesn’t mean better. In fact, natural can even mean unsafe, as treatments that fail to include stabilizing ingredients can become breeding grounds for bacteria. Further, many people have mild allergies to plant-based ingredients commonly used in natural facials, such as pumpkin or cinnamon.
In our opinion, if you see a spa advertising treatments with the terms natural, holistic, or organic in reference to the products they use on your skin, you might want to take your business elsewhere.
Bottom Line on Whether Spa Facials Are Better
Those die-hard fans of spa facials might still attest that it’s the experience that makes the indulgence worthwhile. And, if the experience is why you’re getting a facial (and your bank account can handle the expense), then seeking the attention of a well-trained esthetician doesn’t have any negative implications for your skin.
However, it’s worth noting that facials aren’t endorsed by any major medical organization as a treatment for skin conditions. They can’t affect your deeper organs or promote “detoxification.” Further, we were unable to find any evidence that regular facials can affect long-term change in the texture, tone, or firmness of your skin.
A final note: Since almost every facial includes an exfoliation step, which leaves skin more sensitive to the sun, consider that no esthetician worth revisiting will allow you to leave your facial without applying a well-formulated sunscreen! (Unless, of course, it’s at night.) Bonus points if it includes physical sun-blocking ingredients, such as zinc or titanium dioxide, since they’re less irritating to your freshly-treated skin.